When Charles Cornwallis took over as the Governor-General from Warren Hastings, he began a systematic administrative overhaul to help the British consolidate their hold over India. AFREEN ALAM introduces some of these changes, which influenced our legal system, but also left a permanent scar on our countryside.
T the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, Charles Cornwallis had surrendered the British forces in North America to a combined American-French force. In 1786, the East India Company recruited him as Governor-General of India to prevent the same thing from happening here. He stayed in the position till 1793, initiating pro-imperialist changes, beginning when the loss of colonies (to the descendants of the first settlers, not the natives) was fresh on his mind.
Cornwallis’ job was to ensure that a settled colonial class never emerged to threaten imperial power in India. When he reached Calcutta [now Kolkata], many British officers and soldiers cohabited with Indian women. Inter-racial couples were not rare, nor looked down upon.
Cornwallis introduced a rule that the descendants of British men with Indian wives could not work in the East India Company. He reorganised the Indian legal system in three stages, executed as the judicial reforms of 1787, 1790, and 1793.
He constituted the British administrative system, earlier known as the Cornwallis Code or the Bengal system.
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Judicial Plan of 1787
Lord Cornwallis’ new plan of 1787 combined the revenue and judicial administration into a single authority, we still call the Collector. The Collector had the power to collect land revenue and settle revenue disputes. He was also the district magistrate who could get criminals arrested and try petty matters.
- The Collector heard revenue matters in the Mal Adalat. An appeal against the Collector’s decision went to the board of revenue at Calcutta, and a second appeal lay with the Governor-General and Council.
- Civil matters were heard at the Diwani Adalat, established in each district with the Collector as the sole judge with powers to decide all types of civil cases. A registrar would assist the Collector. Cases of up to Rs. 200 could be referred to the registrar. Appeals went to the Sardar Diwani Adalat at Calcutta in issues with a valuation of Rs. 100 or more. A second appeal went to the King in Council in matters exceeding Rs. 5,000 in value.
- The Collector also got some magisterial powers in criminal matters—to arrest, hear evidence, also send cases to the criminal court with his opinion. He could try petty cases and impose a maximum punishment of “15 strips” or 15-day imprisonment.
Judicial Plan of 1790
The plan of 1790 mainly focused on the criminal administration of justice. Court fees were introduced, ostensibly to reduce the burden on courts. Allowances of the judges and other officers of the court were increased and fixed, to stem corruption and influence. The districts were divided into four divisions—Murshidabad, Calcutta, Dacca, and Patna.
The 1790 reform also eliminated the name of Nawab from the criminal justice administration. The new administration system went into the hands of the English servants of the company, assisted by Muslim law officers.
The pre-existing Mofussil Faujdari Adalat was abolished and in its place, three types of distinct courts were established:
- Court of the District Magistrate—The district magistrate was given the same functions as he had under the plan of 1787, to arrest criminals, take evidence and commit them to the circuit court for trial. For minor crimes, he could punish up to “15 Rattans” or 15 days imprisonment. He also had to maintain all records about the work he had done that were to be examined by the Circuit Court.
- Circuit Court—The entire Moffussil Area was divided into four divisions, Patna, Calcutta, Murshidabad, and Dhaka. A Circuit [moving] Court was established in each division, consisting of two servants of the company who administered criminal justice in all matters presented by the district magistrate. It visited each district twice a year to try those charge-sheeted by the Magistrate. A Qazi and mufti assisted the court.
- The Sadar Nizamat Adalat was transferred to Calcutta from Murshidabad. The Governor-General and council were the judges. They were assisted by a Qazi and mufti in Muslim law cases. The concept of blood money was abolished. Very harsh punishments such as the mutilation of bodies were abolished. The Sadar Nizamat Adalat could only pass capital punishment.
The plan of 1790 also changed the evidence law. Discriminatory provisions related to religion and gender were abolished. All witnesses were made equal before the law. There were also some provisions for the rehabilitation of criminals after they finish their sentences.
Judicial Plan of 1793
In the landmark plan of 1793, Cornwallis bought back the separation of powers. No executive officer was to exercise judicial functions. The executing officers were now under the jurisdiction of the Adalats. He wanted the courts to become the protectors of the rights of the people.
After this plan, any person could sue the government for damages in the Diwani Adalat in the same way that he could sue a private person. British subjects were made amenable to Diwani Adalat. Court fees were abolished so that people could approach the court without much expense.
The Sardar Diwani Adalat was authorised to appoint pleaders and issue Sunnuds. Only people of good reputation, legal knowledge, and character could become pleaders. If any pleader was guilty of corruption, he could be suspended or dismissed.
A schedule was drawn up for a moderate fee charged by the pleader. This plan is also called the Cornwallis code. The 1793 plan reorganised the courts. A complete hierarchy of courts was established to deal with civil matters:
- Sardar Diwani Adalat—The highest court in the judicial hierarchy consisted of the Governor-General and council. It heard appeals against the decisions of the provincial courts of appeal in the matter exceeding Rs. 1000. An appeal against the decision of this court could go to the king in council in cases exceeding Rs. 5000.
- Provincial Court of appeals—The provincial courts of appeals were established in four divisions: Patna, Dacca, Calcutta, and Murshidabad. The court consisted of three British servants of the company as its judges. The court had the jurisdiction to try civil suits referred to by the government or the Sadar Diwani Adalat to receive corruption charges against the Diwani Adalat judges. It was the court of appeal in all matters and also had direct control over subordinate courts.
- Diwani Adalat—A British servant of the company was the judge of the Diwani Adalat; he had no other work except deciding the civil and revenue disappear. The judge had to take an oath of impartiality and was required to keep proper records of all the proceedings.
- Registrar’s court—Diwani Adalat could refer the suits up to Rs. 2000 to the court of a registrar, which a servant of the company held. The orders of the registrar were to be countersigned by the judge of that Diwani Adalat.
- Munsif’s Court—Zamindars, Tehsildars, and other respectable persons were appointed as Munsif to try suits up to Rs.50. Munsifs were selected so that no person would have to travel more than 10 miles to file a suit.
- Ameen’s Court—The court of Ameen, junior to Munsif, had the same composition and powers as the court of Munsif, but it could not entertain a case directly unless the Diwani Adalat transferred it.
In the criminal justice administration, not many changes were made. The magisterial powers of the collectors were transferred to the judge of the Diwani Adalat. The powers of the magistrate were extended to punish criminals in petty offences with imprisonment to 15 days or a fine of Rs. 100. The provincial courts of appeal replaced the Circuit Court. The provincial court of appeal became the main court of criminal jurisdiction after the coming of this plan.
Under the plan of 1793, the land revenue assessment was fixed permanently with zamindars (hereditary revenue collectors). Permanent Settlement increased the company’s land revenues in Bengal. It gave absolute rights to own land to zamindars on the condition that they paid a sum of land tax which Company officials fixed in perpetuity.
This system provided the British with an Indian landowning class interested in supporting British authority. Thus, a highly unequal agrarian society was produced, in which the peasant farmers found their lives harder than ever.
But from the point of view of the Company, the reforms were a huge success.
(Afreen Alam is a final-year law student at the Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)